Low-density Zoning Threatens Neighborhood Character

A few months ago the American Planning Association dubbed the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis a Great Place in America. They cited a lot of the things I like about the neighborhood: parks, bike paths, grocery stores, light rail, community events, small businesses, and the people. There’s one way that planning limits the opportunities of low-income residents, increases economic segregation, weakens our commercial corridors, and makes transit less successful: low-density zoning.

Duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes are attractive and accessible

Small apartment buildings are an important part of every neighborhood’s housing stock. They’re more economical than single family homes, because you’re splitting heating/plumbing/land costs among more people, but many have amenities like porches and yards. Here’s a chart that shows the economic diversity of neighbors who live in 2-4 unit buildings:

We’ve made traditional neighborhoods illegal

Our zoning code regulates how many homes (housing units) are allowed on each lot. Large areas of the city are designated low-density zones (R1, R1A, R2, and R2B), which permit one-family homes or maybe duplexes, and prohibit buildings with three or more homes. Because Minneapolis is older than these zoning laws, there are homes all over the city that don’t match the zoning code, but have been grandfathered in (they’re called “legal non-conforming” in plannerese). By comparing the number of licensed rental units to the permitted density in the zoning code, I made a map that shows each non-conforming property, where the color represents the number of units in the building.

That’s a lot of dots! Let’s take a look at some of these nonconforming properties in Seward along East 25th Street, by the Birchwood Cafe:

Duplex in a single-family zone


4-unit apartment in a single-family zone

4-unit apartment in a single-family zone


Apartments in a single-family zone

Three apartment buildings with 17 units between them, all in a single-family zone

In my opinion, these buildings are fine, they serve a good purpose, and the neighborhood (and city) would be worse off without them. Alex Cecchini has made the case for more density in neighborhood interiors, and Nick Magrino has made the point that the “single-family residential character” of many neighborhoods is make-believe.

Legalize Seward

Duplexes are expensive and scarce, partly because we’ve made it against the law to make a new one in most of the city. Same for triplexes and fourplexes. I like Seward, and we should make room for more neighbors here.

People like to live in 2-3 story multifamily buildings, and we should allow that in most of the city. We need more homes! The rental vacancy rate in the city is around 2%, and it’s been below a healthy 5% since the second quarter of 2010 (back when the average rent was almost $400 lower than it is now). If we don’t build more homes, rents will keep rising and our most vulnerable neighbors will get pushed out of the city.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.